Even While Playing Like Shit The Celtics Are Still The First Team To Check Off One Of The Most Important Boxes In A Pursuit Of A Title

Winslow Townson. Getty Images.

With the NBA's All Star break about 5 days away, it's easy for players to start to look ahead to the week long vacation. That's no different from anyone else in the workforce, and I can guarantee you do the same shit in your own life at work before you hit that week long PTO trip to go sit on a beach somewhere.

Those TPS reports? Fuck em. That's a future you problem. All you're focused on at that time is just getting through the day and into vacation mode. You know it's not how you act all the time, you're still getting your work done, but your mind isn't totally in it.

Why we think NBA players wouldn't be the same way in their job is odd to me. They're human just like anyone else. They have vacations planned just like normal people who use their PTO. It's all just human nature.

When it comes to the Boston Celtics, I don't think anyone with eyes would tell you we're currently watching the Celtics at their peak right now. Nobody would go so far as to say this is the best basketball we've seen them play, or that they won't have to clean things up in whatever playoff series is in their future. But you know what matters? Winning. You know what the Celtics are doing? Winning.

In fact, nobody in the NBA has done more of it. First team to 40 wins, an NBA best 40-12 on the season, an NBA best 21-10 against teams .500 or better (good for most wins and fewesrt losses), a solid 19-2 against teams under .500, which is tied for the 2nd fewest losses in the NBA, an NBA best 25-3 at home, 15-9 on the road which is good for the 3rd most wins and 2nd fewest losses in the NBA, no matter how you slice it, the Celts through 52 games have been an absolute wagon. 

Does this mean they should be perfect? No. Does this mean they won't ever make mistakes or play a shitty level of basketball? No. Does this mean there can't be things they need to improve on and get better at, even though they are winning at an insane clip? Also no.

I look at it like this. For years, fans have screamed that the Celtics always blowing teams out didn't teach us anything

"It's easy to win when all your 3s drop, but what about when they don't? This team needs to show they can win anyway!"

is a line you hear all the time. For the most part, I agree. Having variation in how you are winning games is important. Showing you can blow teams out, win ugly, come from behind, beat bad teams, good teams, win on nights where you don't have it, win on nights where your defense is gross, win on nights where your offense is gross, win with key guys out of the lineup etc, win at home, win on the road, these are ALL things many fans have said they needed to see in order to buy the Celtics as a true contender.

And yet, here we are, getting exactly what people are asking for, and it's a problem? Now they are forming bad habits and everyone should be freaking out because they had to win some games ugly while being 4 days away from the All Star break? Are people just bored or something, because that doesn't really add up to me.

Personally, I'm of the thought that having teachable moments throughout a season while still winning games is actually a good thing. I would much rather play like shit and win than play like shit and lose to bad teams, and knowing that players are not robots and there are going to be ups and downs over the course of an 82 game season, I'm not really sure what more a fanbase could want. Again, this team is 40-12. 

So sometimes you have a game against a 9 win team that ends up being tougher than you probably anticipated. So what? Last time I checked this is still the NBA. At the end of the day, winning is most important, even if it has to come in a game where for the majority of it, the Celts played like shit. I could argue that being able to "coast" and still stack wins at a .769 clip just goes to show you how good this team actually is.

With all that said, let us begin

The Good

- The Basketball Gods really did cook when they created Kristaps Porzingis. Every second he is on the floor it becomes more and more apparent that we are witnessing the missing piece. Of all the moves Brad has made since taking over for Danny Ainge, this is it. This is the one. The impact KP makes on both ends of the floor has completely changed the ceiling of what is possible with this team, and last night was a great example of that

34/11 with a bock on 9-19 (2-4) and 14-14 from the FT line, every night I keep shaking my head, unable to comprehend how Porzingis is not only real, but how on earth the entire league let Brad Stevens get his hands on him. What a bunch of morons. Literally anyone could have traded for KP and they all just decided to do nothing and let Brad swoop in. Was he the only one watching Wizards games? I think he might have been.

Back in June, Brad told us that the main reason they were in on KP was the fact that the Celtics needed a way to destroy switches and mismatches. Please listen to Kristaps Porzingis after he destroyed switches and mismatches last night

You wanted to see the Celts be able to win a wide variety of ways? Find a way to be successful without relying on 3PA? Enter Kristaps Porzingis

- 18.4% post up frequency (8th in the NBA)

- 1.41 points per possession

- 68.9% FG%

- 32.8% FT frequency

- 27.7% score frequency (best in the NBA)

The fact that defenders are left with 2 choices when it comes to KP exploiting mismatches and those choices are he's going to score or he's going to go to the FT line where he's going to go 14-14, if you want to know why the Celts are different this time around, this is your answer. Never, at any point in the Tatum/Brown era, have we seen the Celts have a weapon like this offensively. 

Then on the other end of the floor, it's not just about the block totals. Those are nice, but the other part of his value on that end is how he impacts shots without blocking them. Guys don't exactly have a ton of success trying to shoot over a 7'3 dude with his arms extended, and it's sort of like the Gobert effect. His ability to challenge and make shots tough without fouling is just as important as his blocks. You can throw KP out in space against a quicker player and he can survive more often than not due to his timing and his length. 

We haven't even mentioned the outside shooting yet either, so yeah, things get even better. I'd say KPs outside shooting has been the one area of his game that's taken some time to get to the level we all expected, but here's the good news. After his 50% last night, KP is now shooting 45.5% from deep over his last 10 games, making around 2.5 a night. So not only can you not guard this man when he's inside the arc, he's been just as deadly from behind it since about mid January.

- I thought this was Tatum's better performances of this recent stretch, and when playing a dogshit team it's exactly how I think we all want him to play. A good mix of being aggressive and attacking the rim while also throwing daggers from deep when needed

35/11/8 with 2 bocks on 12-22 (3-10) and 8-9 from the FT line, this was not a situation where the best player saw a bad team on the schedule and decided to coast. I thought Tatum was pretty engaged all night, and I loved his shot distribution

In the second half, 6 of Tatum's 8 FGA were from the FT or closer to go along with his 5 FTA, so to me it was your classic "OK enogh of the bullshit" type of approach from Tatum. Good on him and the coaching staff for adjusting, but the beauty of that half was also the fact that Tatum led the Celts with 6 assists. Nothing really felt forced offensively, and considering Tatum nearly outscored the Wizards by himself in the 3rd quarter (13 vs 16) when this game took a turn is exactly what we all wanted to see from the star player after a brutal first half.

That should be encouraging to you, especially if you are someone that screams about adjustments and exploiting mismatches. That is what Tatum/KP did all night.

- On a team that is loaded with so much firepower and star talent, one of the Celts biggest challenges over the course of this season is everyone continuing to accept and thrive in their role. Some nights it's going to be your night, others your role is going to have to adjust. That's true for pretty much every player on the roster not named Jayson Tatum. He's really the only guy who's role and shot diet will never change.

For something like this to work, the guys at the top have to fully buy in. If they do it, everyone else falls in line. 

That's exactly how I would describe Jaylen Brown's play these last handful of games. He took only 1 shot in the second half against the Hawks while focusing on other areas to make an impact and not force things on a night when others had it going, and then last night it was more of the same. Even in a game where Jaylen shot 9-15, he didn't force things. Only 5 FGA in the second half, that was 4th among the starters. To me, that shows Jaylen's growth. How many years had we seen him on a night where he's shooting the ball well decide "it's Jaylen time" and things sometimes stall offensively? Maybe there's a forced drive into traffic or a low percentage shot simply because it had been forever since Jaylen let one fly.

Recently? It's been the exact opposite, and to me that screams leader.

- Back in the lineup after his little elbow situation, it's pretty clear that was most likely giving Jrue Holiday some fits before he sat out against ATL. His previous two games were pretty subpar by his standards, and after some rest and treatment I'd say Jrue looked way more like the player he's been all year

Was that the quietest 20/7/5 on 9-13 (2-2) we've ever seen? Perhaps. But it just goes to show you how insane the talent level is on this team if a night like that is more of an "ah, that's cool" type of performance than anything else. 

As we know, the Celts getting good guard play is very important to the ceiling of this team and their overall success, and on a night where Derrick was mostly quiet offensively (2-6, 0-4), it was nice to see Jrue be the one to step up and produce. His C&S three point shooting remains one of the best parts of his season thus far, as he's now sitting at 47.3% in those situations. That is FAR AND AWAY the best on the team (Tatum is the next closest at 41.9%).

Last night was only the 7th time all year Holiday has broken 20 in a game, and it's great to know that something like this is in his bag when the team needs it. That's a luxury that not many other teams can say they have. 

- Make no mistake, the Celts won this game because of the defense they played in the 3rd quarter. It was the only 12 minutes of defense we saw all night, but 16 points on 31/20% while forcing 6 TOs is exactly what the doctor ordered at the time. Why the Celts could only play 12 minutes of defense isn't great, but the fact that they locked in on that end did wonders for what we saw on the other. When you get stops, buckets feel easier. Shots start to drop and the next thing you know you've won the quarter 36-16.

- And just like that, the Celts have checked the 40/20 rule box. To anyone who pays attention, you know what a huge deal this is. It doesn't guarantee you a title, but NBA history tells us that to win a title, you pretty much need to check this box. You can go down the list throughout the 75 years of NBA history, and there are like 3 teams that won a title without hitting 40/20, but some of those came in weird lockout/covid seasons.

Checking that off the list matters, and it took the Celts only 52 games to do it.

The Bad

- You know what, let's talk about that defense. Here's what I know. In no way shape or form is it ever acceptable for a fully healthy Celtics roster to allow 129 points in regulation to the Washington Wizards. Living in a world where 3 of the 4 quarters saw the Wizards score at least 35 points, including 42 in the final 12 minutes is repulsive. There's no spinning that.

We know what the Celts look like when they are locked in defensively, which is why it's so obvious when they aren't. Just compare that 3rd quarter to the other three we had to live through and it's pretty clear. Last night, it was some pretty awful three point defense. Was it a prayer that the Wizards went 20-47 from deep as a team? Maybe. But here's the thing. During this "bad" stretch, the Celts haven't exactly been nails in terms of limiting opponents three point production.

Over this homestand (7 games), the Celts ranked 22nd in opponent 3PM a night, at 13.6. Teams shot on average 39.4 3PA over those 7 games, which is 29th in the league over that sample size. Of that 39.4 number, here are the two concerning parts

1. The Celts are giving up 13.0 "open" 3PA a game

2. The Celtics are giving up 22.7 "wide open" 3PA a game

That #2? That's the worst in the NBA over the last 7 games.

So it's not just the volume of 3s the Celts have given up during this stretch, it's the type of 3s that are the issue. Last night, the Celts gave up 28 "wide open" 3PA to the Wizards, who shot 43.8% on those looks. On open ones? 15 more of those for 40% shooting. 

Add that up and you see that of the Wizards' 47 3PA, 43 of them were "open/wide open" with the majority being "wide open". That's bad defense. In a playoff series, you have to guard the line. There will not be too many Washington Wizards type teams who are playing in the Spring, and to me this is why the Celts defense feels so shitty lately. They need to get back to running guys off the line or at the very least stop giving up so many wide open looks. 

- To add onto that, I don't love this recent trend of giving up a billion points in the first half of these games. With the Hawks game and then last night, the Celts have had a first half Drtg of 123.2 (16th) with opponents averaging 69.0 points a half (28th). This is maybe where you'd play the "coasting" card, but to me that's still no excuse for being one of the worst first half defenses in the entire NBA, while playing bad teams at home. That has to get cleaned up because you can't always flip a switch and change an entire game in a single quarter like we saw last night.

Shooting is going to come and go. Defense and energy and effort are things you can control and need to be a consistent 48 minute thing. 

The Ugly

- This might have been the worst transition defense we've ever seen the Celtics play. An insane 36-18 fastbreak point difference, this was probably the biggest area of shit from this game. It wasn't even a turnover thing either as the Celts only had 13 for the game, but more a lack of effort. In no world should a team be putting up nearly 40 goddamn points in transition. Find a body for me one time, it cannot be that hard.

And credit the Wizards, they got out on the break, made their transition threes and it's what kept them in the game. But as Joe talked about after the game, about 10 of those plays were all a result of poor effort, not just poor execution. This was one of the rare times the Celts played with their food and it didn't come back to bite them, but in no world was their transition defense anywhere close to being acceptable.

- I would now like to talk about the end of games. For the love of God, can we please trust someone on this roster to handle the ball late in the 4th quarter when the defense pressures up and execution and ball security is extremely important. I am now begging.

This was why some said the team needed to move on from Smart right? Well then if that's the case I need shit like this to stop happening

It didn't matter who it was, for whatever reason the best players on this team still cannot stop themselves from having CTE in these moments. It's the biggest issue we see in a playoff series and yet here we are, still dribbling the clock out, still turning it over, still making life WAY harder than it needs to be. If you want to be concerned about something, THIS is something I think has more legitimacy than anything else. 

Up 14 with 3:24 left, that's a game you should not be sweating the rest of the way. There are times we ask for a non-Jay wing to handle the ball in these situations, and Holiday keeps turning it over. We scrap that and say OK fine, the best players can just handle it, and both Tatum and Brown turn it over. At this point, just let Derrick do everything. Run some White/KP PnR and call it a day, because everything else doesn't seem to work.

What we know is coming is teams doubling Tatum/Brown at the top when a game is close late. What I also know is coming is most likely a brutal turnover. Until that gets cleaned up, things won't look different at the end of these games.

In the end, a 5-2 homestand is good enough for me and if for the moment the Celts just need to win ugly, so be it. Wins are what I care about at this time of the year, and nobody in the league has more.